Honor the ADA: Avoid Web Accessibility Quick-Fix Overlays

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This is a post about software that promises to make websites accessible. Companies promise that a website will work for disabled people if the software is installed. Companies also promise that using the software will prevent a website from being sued because it is not accessible. Lainey does not agree. True accessibility is about including disabled people in the digital world. These tools do not stop lawsuits. They do not create long lasting access. And their own websites have barriers.

Article updated

This article has been updated since it was first published on August 10, 2020. The most recent update was added on January 14, 2022. Read the updates for this article.

three disabled people crawling up the steps of the capitol as part of a protest to get the ADA past. Black woman in foreground, white man in background

The Americans with Disabilities Act celebrated its 30th anniversary last month. The law was born of the struggles, stories, pain and advocacy of disabled people and the disability community. The image accompanying this post, taken by disability movement photographer Tom Olin in 1990, is a stark reminder of that.

The image shows the Capitol Crawl – a brilliant activist strategy during which wheelchair users got out of their chairs and crawled up the steps of the U.S. capitol. It was a pivotal moment in winning needed congressional support for the ADA.

Web accessibility overlays and widgets are Artificial Intelligence (AI) software tools that promise “ADA compliance with one line of code.” These products are the very antithesis of the Capitol Crawl and all that the ADA represents.

These tools do not focus on the needs of people with disabilities to participate in the digital world. And they do not involve disabled people in creating the accessible technology and content they need. Instead, they leave people with disabilities out of the equation and ignore well documented evidence that installing one line of code does not eliminate barriers to digital inclusion.

And instead of building something long lasting, like a 30 year old civil rights law, nothing at all is built. The minute a site owner stops paying the license fee – nothing.

I encourage readers to honor the ADA and the advocates who fought for it by saying “no” to an industry that risks turning back the clock on digital inclusion. Say “no” to products that forget that the ADA is about people with disabilities and their human right to participate in the digital world.

And if you need another reason to say no, these tools don’t even protect against lawsuits.

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(False) Promises of ADA compliance

One of the worst aspects of the quick-fix accessibility widgets is their promise that installation will satisfy ADA obligations immediately on purchase. This advertising angle misleads potential buyers and preys on the fear generated by certain types of ADA lawsuit that themselves raise ethical concerns. On websites and Google ads readers are bombarded with language like the following:

The #1 Fully Automated Web Accessibility Solution for ADA & WCAG Compliance. Add a single line of code for 24/7 automated compliance[Accessibe.com

Full compliance guaranteed ADA certificate & year round protection. 1 easy step – just insert one-line-of-code and we will do the rest[EqualWeb]

FULLY AUTOMATED AI-POWERED ADA / WCAG & SECTION 508 COMPLIANCE Get Your Website Accessible In 1 Easy Step AI-Powered Web Accessibility Instant. Simple. Robust. Affordable. JUST INSTALL 1 SINGLE LINE OF CODE [MaxAccess]

Get your website accessible in minutes. [MaxAccess

With zero effort required on your part, UserWay’s Accessibility Widget automatically describes the contents and populates the alternative text attribute (alt-text) for each image on your site.[UserWay]

These promises of ADA and WCAG compliance are hollow and misleading.  Digital accessibility is an ADA issue because the ADA requires effective communication and prevents discrimination. The law’s core value for thirty years has been the participation of disabled people in all aspects of society. A poorly designed website with a band-aid on top results in exclusion.

These overlays/widgets at their best offer minimal (often redundant) tools and possible remediation of a small percentage of barriers. (Please read the articles by accessibility experts below for more technical detail.)

A blind colleague shared his views about companies that promise ADA compliance but cannot deliver it:

After nearly 30 years in the accessibility biz, I have come to learn that there are no magic buttons when it comes to accessibility. We would all love one, but we have yet to see a tool that can replace a hard working accessibility professional manually testing and remediating sites and apps. Darren Burton, retired accessibility professional

Fear of lawsuits drives purchase of widgets but using an overlay won’t protect you from lawsuits

Digital accessibility is about people with disabilities being able to use the web and other technologies. The web overlay widgets are about avoiding lawsuits.

The growth of this software is exponential because the United States is awash in accessibility fear stemming from the growth of web accessibility litigation since 2017. Sadly, venture capital has been attracted by that fear to fund this type of claimed solution,  funding one of the fix-it-with-no effort-solutions to the tune of 12 million dollars.

Lucy Greco is a blind web accessibility evangelist who, in addition to her day job, runs the AccessAces website. She recognizes the negative impact of these license sales driven by fear of lawsuits:

All of the tools I have seen that claim to fix accessibility with one line of code fail in the first principles of accessibility. i.e. accessibility is about real people and not about winning the systems and not getting sued. Frankly these toolbars make it so I can’t do nearly as much on the site as i could have without the tool bar there. Lucy Greco

Most of the companies run ads based on law suit fear, such as AccessiBe’s ad that pops up on a search of “web accessibility” claiming they can “Protect your business from lawsuits.”

Not so.  In the year we celebrate the ADA’s 30th anniversary, lawsuits are being filed against website owners who thought an overlay would protect them.

Web accessibility consultant UsableNet reports in its Midyear 2020 ADA Website And App Accessibility Lawsuit Report that “Around 100 companies received lawsuits after investing in widget or overlays, some lawsuits even listed widget features as an extra burden.” (The methodology is explained in the report.) Adrian Roselli’s article linked below discusses a few of these lawsuits.

I did not independently check these numbers, but they don’t surprise me. Over the coming year, I expect to hear about more.

Why?  Because putting an overlay on a broken website doesn’t ensure full participation.  It doesn’t guarantee that web content will be “effectively communicated” to disabled users. And that is what the ADA is all about.

Defense Lawyers also warn against quick-fix software

Defense lawyer Richard Hunt writes the Accessibility Defense Blog and represents small businesses on the receiving end of web accessibility lawsuits and demands letter. While I often disagree with this blog’s tone and focus about ADA cases, on the issue of quick-fix accessibility solutions we are in agreement.

In a March 2020 post titled “Is there a silver bullet for ADA website accessibility? Sorry, but the answer is no, Hunt writes:

If your business wants to avoid getting sued under the ADA because of an inaccessible website an accessibility overlay or widget isn’t going to help you. I can say this with some certainty because in the last two weeks alone five lawsuits have been filed against businesses that use an accessibility widget or overlay on their websites.

If avoiding litigation is your goal an overlay or widget won’t do the trick. Accessibility Defense blog

It tells me something when the technical experts and lawyers on both sides of the fence are in agreement.

Digital accessibility (and the ADA) is about more than websites

The overlays also narrowly focus “compliance” on an organization’s website.  More and more digital accessibility lawsuits are focused on mobile applications or internal workplace tools or kiosks.   Accessibility programs must embrace all technologies.  Putting a band-aid on one digital offering detracts from the need for an integrated approach.

I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict what cases will be filed or what judges will do with those cases.  But ethical ADA claims are based on people with disabilities not being able to get needed information and use needed tools. Overlays can’t ensure that they will.

Separate sites are not equal

There is another legal concern for anyone purchasing a band-aid solution instead of remediating accessibility barriers at their source and building accessibility in from the beginning design phase.  Is the site rendered when the widget is activated a separate site from the broken one?

Is it separate and unequal  to offer a broken site that provides minimal accessibility options only if you turn on the tool? (In 2018 the Department of Transportation fined an airline under a different civil rights law for creating a separate but equal website. And in 2014 I wrote a post titled Separate Is Not Equal: Good News For Grocery Delivery after a successful Structured Negotiation that eliminated a separate and unequal website in favor of one site that worked for everyone.)

Again, I do not know what courts will do with any particular type of legal claim. I do know that thirty years after passage of the ADA separate and unequal is not ok.

Accessibility is a basic element of web development, not an afterthought

Web evangelist Lucy Greco spent  time sharing  her experiences with me about some of the “fix-it-fast” widgets:

The fundamental problem with these tools is that they block the developers’ learning curve that leads to the creation of accessible web sites. If a developer thinks a claimed quick-fix solution is doing the heavy lifting, the developer doesn’t have the incentive or funding to spend the time that real access takes.

Making a site accessible is a part of any good website development. These toolbars take that part of web development out of the process and end up making more INaccessible web sites than would have otherwise been created. Honestly, I feel that these tools are more insidious than if a site didn’t use them. Lucy Greco

As Lucy Greco points out, it is well accepted that true accessibility must be baked in from the beginning to ensure an inclusive user experience. These overlay/widget tools boast that “no code changes are needed.” Yet accessible coding is an essential ingredient of an inclusive web.

Other ingredients of what I like to call the accessibility cookies are flat out missing from the over-promising widgets and overlays. Hiring disabled people, transparency, inclusive design, usability testing with disabled people, manual checking of automated testing results, an accessible procurement process. Shifting left so accessibility is considered and tested for as early in the design and development process as possible.

These are all crucial aspects of an inclusive web that are inconsistent with “one line of code” fixes.

Using an overlay wastes money and does not build accessibility capacity

hand dropping money in trashcanMonthly license fees for these products range from    $490.00 a year (AccessiBe), $29.00 a month (EqualWeb) to over $1,500.00 a month (TruAbilities). These prices buy you the tool only for as long as you pay the fee.

Chancey Fleet, a technology user, trainer, and creator who is blind, sent feedback after we looked at some of the overlay tools together. Among her many activities, Chancey is an Affiliate-in-Residence, Data and Society Research Institute:

Organizations that invest in these overlays are spending money without building the internal capacity to make their websites natively accessible, locking them in to ongoing costs without organizational progress. Even worse, overlays are often accepted by organizations as a guarantee that the websites to which they are applied will be accessible for customers and employees.

This false sense of security can lead to procurement decisions that end with inaccessible sites being deployed, with the disastrous outcomes of alienating customers, making employees less productive, and exposing organizations who bought overlays to legal liability and the unhappy task of retooling entire websites after deployment. Chancey Fleet

One of the things that bothers me most about these tools is what Chancey Fleet identifies:  when a company purchases these products and then lets the license expire, they have nothing to show for their investment. The expression “throwing good money after bad”  (as shown in the image here of cash dropping in to a trash can) comes to mind.

Accessibility Takes Effort

UserWay promises described images for blind people “With zero effort required on your part.” AccessiBe promises that it’s product is “Effortless.” Add a single line of code for 24/7 automated compliance.”

The words “effortless” and “zero effort” are bright red flags that an accessibility tool will not produce accessible and usable websites.

I have been working with organizations on website accessibility since 1997.  In 2000 I helped negotiate the first web accessibility agreement in the United States between Bank of America and its blind customers. I’ve worked with dozens of large companies committed to digital inclusion and tell  stories of collaborations between those companies and blind consumers in my book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits.

I know  from first hand experience that building an accessibility program is not “effortless.”

Darryl Hilliker is a blind accessibility champion in the connected, online blind community and the owner of Blind Access Journal. He too knows that effort is required:

I am concerned anytime I hear of someone offering to provide effortless accessibility. Although accessibility doesn’t have to be overly difficult, especially when it is implemented in the initial design of an app or website, it does have to be done deliberately and with a level of thoughtfulness equal to that given to the visual design for sighted users.Darryl Hilliker

Today, 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s not just disabled advocates and disability rights lawyers making the case for the effort needed to build an inclusive digital environment.

The large global companies leading the charge for digital inclusion recognize the effort it takes to build an accessible inclusive digital world, sharing that is not only the right thing to do, not only needed for compliance, but good for business.

If you are new to the space, please spend time exploring the accessibility commitment of companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Salesforce, Adobe, Accenture, LInkedIN, Fidelity, Amazon and others. Become part of the accessibility community through MeetUps, conferences, Twitter and LinkedIN.

You will soon discover that the effort it takes to build an inclusive digital world is an essential value of the 21st century business, academic, and government environments.

The overlay/widget sites themselves have accessibility barriers

When a company promises 100% ADA compliance in a few keystrokes, you would think its own website would be barrier free.  Not so with the web accessibility quick fix sites.

Lucy Greco and Chancey Fleet wrote me about significant barriers on websites of companies promising quick-fix ADA compliance:

When i first opened the page my screenreader started to read like it should. Then the page started to play an audio clip that spoke over my screen reader.  We call this non-consensual sound. This is a big no no, as it keeps me from using my screen reader.Lucy Greco

While accessibility overlays promise to deliver access and compliance as a service, a quick tour of the three overlay websites we tested revealed unlabeled controls and graphics, pop-out controls that did not gain keyboard focus, misuse of headings and silent, undescribed videos: all evidence that the purveyors of these tools lack the fundamental ability to deliver what they promise.Chancey Fleet

Recently Haben Girma, disability rights lawyer, international speaker, and author of Haben: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law posted on Facebook after reading one of the technical articles linked below:

‪Beware of companies claiming quick & easy accessibility solutions. I tried websites using #accessiBe & #user1st. Both were frustrating and full of barriers. Take the time to understand how blind & other disabled people navigate websites.Haben Girma

I think that sums it up: take the time to understand how disabled people navigate websites. Hire disabled people for roles throughout the design and development process and implement well recognized best practices. Rely on reputable consultants and proven tools. Respect the ADA and avoid quick-fix tools.

Read more about Web Accessibility Overlays

The following articles are written by web accessibility consultants and champions that I respect. If you are thinking of purchasing a type of tool described in this post, please read these articles.

Updates to this article

January 14, 2022 Update

For more information and resources on the legal side of web accessibility overlays, please visit the article on this website titled Legal Update:  Accessibility Overlay Edition, which will be updated with new legal developments.  For information and resources on advertising issues and web accessibility overlays, please visit the resource titled Truth in advertising does not exist for overlay vendors.

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July 15, 2021 Update

Added the Overlay Factsheet, a compendium of resources on Overlays signed by more than 500 web accessibility professionals, including Lainey Feingold.

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February 15, 2021 Update

January 14, 2021 Update

Added a new resource: a report commissioned as part of a legal case in US federal court . The report, by web accessibility expert Karl Groves, is titled Sole reliance on accessiBe will not be sufficient in ensuring full and equal access to a website.

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October 18, 2020 Update

Added a new resource from French web accessibility consultant Julie Moynat. Thank you Julie for (sadly) teaching me the global reach of the problem described in this article.

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